I think it's only fair to say, upfront, that I love Alien. I've seen it at least a dozen times and even though I know what's coming, I still get a little fright every time. I should also warn you that in order to discuss the new footage, I have to reveal some plot elements of act three, in other words, this review contains spoilers.
I was a little concerned when I heard about the "digitally enhanced re-release" of Alien. In my opinion, the film works really, really well as-is. What if they put it a crappy CG Alien? What if they digitally replace the crew member's flame throwers with walkie-talkies? What if I have to sit through a boring plantation sequence?!?! Lucky for me and thousands of other Alien fans, the "director's cut" is almost indistinguishable from the version released in 1979. Even the running time is virtually the same.
Here's a brief plot summary to refresh your memory:
The Nostromo is a cargo ship headed back to earth from deep space. The computer awakens the crew early because of an unidentified signal coming from a nearby galaxy. The crew is reluctant, but their contracts require them to investigate any potential signs of alien life. After a rough landing on an environmentally hostile planet, the crew make their way to a ship which appears to have crash-landed. On board this amazing H.R. Geiger spacecraft are hundreds of alien cocoons and, well, you know how it goes from there.
What is new and different about the director's cut?
The scene where Ripley is initiating the ship's self-destruct sequence is a couple of minutes shorter and in its place we get to see Ripley discover the Alien's "nest" and all her fellow crewmembers rotting in Alien goo. There is also a brief shot added in act two of the alien hanging from some ceiling chains, and a shot of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) decking Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). The soundtrack has been enhanced to six-channel digital surround, but the changes are subtle (we are spared the ever-lasting water drip in the rear right channel like the one in Das Boot).
Overall, the new footage does not drastically improve or detract from the film. The real benefit of this re-release is just seeing this film on the big screen. Alien truly holds up in the CG-dominated world of 2003. In fact, the limitations of making a space film in 1979 are a big part of what makes Alien so scary. Space-heroes today have it too easy.
If the crew on the Nostromo had a big digital map of their ship where they could track the movements of the Alien or nuke it with a laser-guided missile, the film wouldn't be any fun! It's so much better when all the crew has to work with is an Apple IIe computer display and some crappy tracking devices that only work in one direction. Moreover, because the Alien is just a guy in a suit, the audiences' view of it has to be really limited. You don't even get a full view of the creature until two-thirds of the way through the film and its three times as scary that way.
The other thing Alien does right is the characters. In a sci-fi world of Chosen Ones and queens of Naboo, Alien is about everyday people the audience can relate to. They aren't rocket scientists, they don't have super powers, and they are all under the thumb of a corporation. I especially like the character of Parker (played by Yaphet Kotto) who is essentially the voice of the audience. "Throw Kane and the freaky alien in the freezer and let someone on earth worry about it! I just want to get home and get paid!"
As much as I'd like to think the studio is re-releasing Alien in order to remind current filmmakers how to make a good movie, I suspect the real reason has to do with the upcoming Alien versus Predator movie next summer. Whatever their motive, Alien is a welcome addition to this week's theatrical releases.
-Megan A. Denny